Pat Aufderheide is a professor in the School of Communication at American University and is the author of Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. In the post below Aufderheide gets excited for the Academy Award nominations by recalling some of her favorite documentaries.
Ready to handicap the documentary short list for the Academy Awards?
I didn’t think so.
In fact, unless you go looking, you might never even find a mention of these films before the Oscars, much less watch them, even with new Academy rules requiring more theatrical showings than before. But before long, they’ll start creeping into circulation, and feeding the growing appetite for documentaries.
For the record and as a documentary addict, I’m crossing my fingers for Phil Donohue and Ellen Spiro’s Body of War, a story about one wounded vet’s journey toward anti-war protest. I also would love to see attention to War/Dance (a local favorite this fall, from local filmmakers Sean and Andrea Fine), a story that with grace and respect takes you inside the experience of Ugandan child soldiers. I hope the masterful public affairs storyteller Alex Gibney gets attention for his Abu Ghraib film, Taxi to the Dark Side. And I want everyone to see Weijun Chen’s Please Vote for Me, a winsome and thought-provoking story of elections in a Chinese third-grade class.
While it’s still harder to find docs on the marquee than, say, National Treasure, we do have much more access to them than ever before. PBS’s signature doc series Independent Lens (where Please Vote for Me will show up) and P.O.V.; home-delivery services like Netflix and iTunes; and Landmark theaters’ doc selections have been bringing them ever closer to you. Viewers have more freedom of choice, they’ve been exercising it, and they’re choosing docs.
But where to start? There are hurdles. You’d watch a film about Ugandan refugees, of course, but your spouse wouldn’t. On a cold evening after work, you’re tired and would rather pick entertainment. You hate Michael Moore and his smug ranting.
OK then, here’s a starter list. They are ten recent documentaries, just a few among the many I love (not the latest, a lot of them are still waiting for distribution. You can find them all on Netflix with a click. They’re all films that you could offer to a friend or a spouse, and watch without losing either sleep or brain cells. And they’re all films that let you see how rich and exciting this genre can be when it’s allowed to express itself.
Amandla! (2002) Lee Hirsch. How did song spread and nurture anti-apartheid spirit in and beyond South Africa? Art meets politics in a good way, and go ahead, tap your feet.
Murderball (2005) Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro. The best antidote for sanctimonious, climb-every-mountain disability films. These paraplegics are here to play rugby, and if they can pick up a date, that works for them too.
Recording ‘The Producers’: A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks. (2001). Susan Froemke. The musicians and stars of the musical get down to work, with the irrepressible Mel Brooks—he is his own unabashed best fan—enthusiastically championing the process.
Rivers and Tides (2001). Thomas Riedelsheimer. Andy Goldsworthy makes ephemeral art from stones, ice, leaves, water and in the process makes you see the natural world as if for the first time. Watching him fail is as mesmerizing as watching him succeed.
Shut Up and Sing (2006). Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks puts down George Bush, the singers discover the cost of speaking your mind. Watch the girls discover their First Amendment rights, and win new fame!
Sing Faster: The Stagehands’ Ring Cycle (1999). Jon Else. It’s really hard to find a film that’s as much fun for opera-haters as for opera-lovers, but this might be it. The stagehands’ view of Wagner, oh yes.
Winged Migration (2001).Jacques Perrin. To film the world-wide peregrinations of elegant, stately and just plain improbable birds, this French team had to raise some of them from birth. A jaw-dropper all the way through; you’ll never look at a swamp the same way again.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003). Judy Irving. An oddball hippie and escaped exotic birds both find sanctuary among the perches of San Francisco’s elite. You could go for the birds or the philosophy, or both.
Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1999). St. Clair Bourne. This one’s here because the director (a friend) just died, he’s on my mind, and this biographical portrait is a good example of his diverse and prolific work.
Sisters in Law (2005). Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto. In West Cameroon, two women judges wrangle sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes comic family conflicts. These women are formidable, and unforgettable.
You would have made a different list? Well, so would I, on another day. When I see Fujimori in the news, I recall Pam Yates and Paco de Onis’ State of Fear, a fascinating (and cautionary) study of state-induced terror in Peru. When I read about local undocumented workers, I can’t help thinking of Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini’s Farmingville, which concerns a Long Island town riven by the challenge. I’m in love with so many grand older documentaries, now also available with a click—the Maysles brothers’ Salesman (1968). Errol Morris’ early work Gates of Heaven (1978), Kartemquin Films’ Hoop Dreams (1996).